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The First Telescope

A brief historical note

by Michael Porter

It's 1608 in Middelburg, Holland. A spectacle maker, Jan Lippershey, is making glasses in his workshop.

Outside, his children are playing with some of his lenses. They line up two lenses about a foot apart. Looking through, they discover the local church steeple appears so much closer that they can actually see the birds nesting under the spire. The excited children show their discovery to their father, and thus the telescope is invented. News spreads across Europe to Galileo, and the rest is history.

When I ran across this account of the invention of the telescope in Neal Howard's Standard Handbook for Telescope Making, the mention of birds caught my attention. Could it really be that looking at birds was part of the first known use of a telescope?

It may be impossible to know how much of the story is true. But the story is just as signifcant even if the detail about the birds in the spire was added later. It's a glimpse of the primal joy of birding. It testifies to how universal is the assumption that the first thing you'd want to do with a telescope would be to look at birds.

--Michael Porter


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